Location: Neon City.
I could hear the incoming call tone repeating itself, it should have been coming out of my media-slab, from where I'd hurled it against the far wall of my apartment a couple of seconds ago. Except it was coming from behind my eyeballs? I was pretty sure none of my implants did this.
Maybe the half empty bottle of Shiaikan whisky sloshing by my bed had something to do with it?
All I knew was it was midday and too early for this, but the pinging just wouldn't go the hell away.
Relenting, I hauled myself up and bumbled over to the media-slab. There was a small indentation where it had hit the drywall. Nothing to worry about, it was a JaunkeuSix model Eodinhwa slab, finished in machined slate grey and built to last, it would probably outlive me.
Bill was on the other end, he was calling all of us. Something was up.
We met up on the hottest part of the day. At its zenith, a merciless sun, high in a hazy blue-white sky pumped out waves of biting heat and light, so harsh we were forced to seek cover under the awning of a street stall selling icy Kaiangxing Cola.
Over some thankfully chilled drinks, Bill explained what had happened.
When we operated, we liked to so so quietly, avoiding attention, out of sight and under the radar.
Bill said that someone had noticed us, someone at Chou-Nata had picked up on Bill's meal-deal and he'd gotten a call from them.
We agreed to meet up in vid-chat: Katsuko Nakamura was a corpulent, sallow skinned middle-aged guy, a soft suit who had never even had a sniff of the street. He was the errand boy of some high level exec in Neon City that he didn't want to name.
The exec-without-a-name did have a grandma though; Tatsuya Miko, she liked to come down to street level for the night life, the karaoke in particular.
Last night, Tatsuya and her sister Kawai had gone down to Ninety Ninth Street. They had gone to a karaoke bar actually called Karaoke! They had never come back.
Nakamura wanted us to look into it, but quietly.
The tram ride was noisy, stifling and uncomfortable, over-crowded and over-hot. Ninety Ninth Street was a commercial and shopping district, well known as the city's entertainment centre and a big draw for fun-seekers from all over.
As it came into view we could see the not-so-anonymous seedy gambling dens, colourful and jingle-blaring pachinko parlours, loud and brightly lit yet somehow still gloomy arcade dens. There were cheerful wine bars, smoky pubs and cliquish dives, tiny theatres and niche restaurants, exotic street performers and craft market stalls.
When people say Neon City; Ninety Ninth is what they think off. All the sounds and the lights merged into one headache inducing cacophony but this didn't stop anybody coming. It seethed with people all day, all night, all looking for a good time. Tourists, gawkers, gamblers, good-time girls, drinkers and chancers, all looking to live the electric dream.
Rising above all of it and dominating the view was The Benten Tower, a soaring sky-piercing edifice of steel, concrete and glass, dedicated to the excesses and hegemonic ambitions of Protobase Global. A silent, gleaming monolithic over-watcher, a constant reminder of where the the seats of power lay in Neon City.
Today was as busy as any day on Ninety Ninth, the sidewalk trembled under the flow of humanity which always seemed to be going against us.
We navigated our way to Karaoke, the frontage was cheerfully painted in bright colours and stamped with the logo All Night Your Dreams Are Made Concrete.
Inside, it was a slick operation, clean and comfortable with tasteful, pricey fittings, a stocked bar and kitchen and a fully licensed quality Utsuashu karaoke set up.
Bill went to talk to the staff whilst we took a look around.
Karaoke was busy even for that time of day and some hopeful wannabe was hanging on the mic, murdering a forty year-old classic. No one in here flagged any warnings and everyone was just looking to have a good time.
Bill came back with some info, said to us that a different shift was working the night and we'd have to speak to them when they came back on at around eight.
A manager had told him that much of Karaoke's clientèle were old folk, they were a good source of customers. Recently though, they had been coming in but weren't staying.
There definitely weren't any old people in Karaoke when we looked around.
Finally, the manager had said to Bill that he reckoned they were being lured away by illegal karaoke dens run by The Yakuza.
The human element hadn't given us much, now it was time to hit the digital side. I'd seen several security cameras in Karaoke.
I found a suitable spot and jacked into my data-slab, the real world folded away and the artificially vibrant virtual landscape of the GLOWNET opened up. The vast digital ecosystem inhabited by constantly updating data-populations, herds of information, flocks of knowledge and me the hunter.
It was easy to find Karaoke's link to the GLOWNET, from there it was simple to track its data outputs to a Karseakk secure server. It was run by a minor security outfit called Turomaasi who stored all of their clients' security feeds on the server. One of the clients was Karaoke.
Getting into the server was no problem, footage was routinely auto-deleted every seventy two hours so security was low priority and the last twenty was all we needed.
Katsuko Nakamura had provided us with images of the two women. Karaoke had footage from three cameras covering the public, we chose the footage facing the audience in the seating area. Sifting through footage of the audience, I easily found them using some facial recognition software.
We watched the evening play out, the security camera was on a wide angle and the sisters were distant in the footage and not particularly clear. It had been a busy night, Karaoke was packed, a constant barrage of customers were coming and going in a churn of activity and the seating was filled.
During their visit, the sisters had ordered food, when it arrived we could see the pair of them staring at something on the table. It was out of shot, no amount of zooming the image would show us what it was.
The footage played on, a few moments later we saw someone approach the sisters. It a was what appeared to be a young man from his trendy clothes and posture, some sort of digital smudge was obscuring his face, turning it into a pixelated mess, impenetrable to facial recognition.
It took a serious player to mask a face in this way and some serious tech. We were up against someone with major resources in their pocket.
They exchanged words in a brief conversation and then the sisters got up and went with the man.
There was no clue or indication why they had done this, what had the man said? What had they seen on the table?
As the trio had left Karaoke, I flicked over to the footage of the front door security camera. They had strolled out into a Neon City rainy night, moisture on the lens had turned the feed of Ninety Ninth Street's exuberant lights into a smear of kaleidoscopic colours. It was the last we saw of them as they vanished out of camera shot and into a sea of bobbing umbrellas and upturned coat collars.
The footage hadn't given us much but it was enough to work with and we came up with a plan: Use Bill as bait!
Bill was the proud owner of a piece of black tech called a Mannikten nano implant, his head was filled with programmable nanites controlled by a chip in his nervous system, those nanites could be sent to his face to change its shape and appearance. In most of the the world it was contraband, the stuff of espionage and criminals but in Neon City, available from any street clinic or unlicensed cyber-butcher.
Bill also had a Mesbuh Buryayi voice modulator that physically altered his vocal cords, allowing him to mimic any voice he heard; more black tech.
There was nothing else to learn at Karaoke, we decided to not hang around.
After leaving, we searched all of Neon City's archived news-hubs. There was nothing in particular about people missing from around Ninety Ninth Street and rentacop would know even less. There was nothing else left to but relax and allow the rest of the day to burn away.
By the time we returned, the evening rain was lashing down on to Ninety Ninth. The street was awash with puddles and people, the noise, the colour, the bustle, all still there and somehow even more intense; nightlife was in full swing.
Bill had acquired a walking stick, he had also acquired, wrinkles, a creased forehead and a face full of age lines, his voice was gravelly and cracked. With the help of his implants he now looked about eighty!
Koko, Trigger and I entered Karaoke together and Old Man Bill hobbled in separately. We ordered drinks and he ordered food.
Koko had instructed Kevin to hover above Karaoke's entrance.
The place was as busy as the night before, what the footage had failed to convey was the noise. The humming din of chatting customers and the throbbing bass of the sound system as it kicked out music intermingled with tuneless singing.
We almost had to shout to be heard and our comms barely functioned over the roaring background noise.
We drank and waited and watched.
When Bill got his food, some promotional material was also put on to his table. On the top of this junk was a business card:
Revered Elderly Citizen
Indulge your passion for song
and melody with complimentary
beverages and soft foods.
My name is: Lee Xao
Please accompany me to a new destination*
*We will move moderately, but with purpose
The name Lee Xao had actually been printed on a small sticker that had been stuck on to the generic card - which must have been handed out to a number of different people.
So that was it: No blackmail, no hi-tech manipulation, no drug-induced suggestibility. Just the lure of free food.
As expected, moments later a lean, young Chinese looking man, slickly dressed in a tailor made, designer cream-coloured Shaguaifu suit and high quality imitation leather Peidi shoes stepped up to Bill, smiling affably; Lee Xao, it had to be.
Bill played the part, allowed himself to seemingly be convinced and left with Lee Xao.
Meanwhile, we stayed cool and let them walk off. Koko reached for her control-slab, after she saw them leaving through Kevin's video feed, She tagged Bill on the slab, Kevin would recognise the tag and auto-trail it.
Bill and Lee Xao worked they way through the seething crowds.
Kevin was following them, quietly hovering above the relentless crush on the street, hidden by the darkness and the downpour.
We followed at a distance, Koko had a precise fix on Kevin's position on her slab at all times and saw everything the drone did through its night vision lens. At the same time, we maintained constant comms with Bill.
Ninety Ninth was thick with people and heavy will rain. Even though Old Man Bill was deliberately walking slowly, it would be easy to to lose them. Without Kevin tracking from above it would have been almost impossible to trail them without being spotted.
This went on for a while until they turned into an alleyway.
It was typically under-lit, long with shadows and strewn with bags of uncollected refuse. Little pieces of loose garbage cheerfully span around, floating on the alley's ample, rippling puddles which the pair had to avoid. It was every alleyway in Neon City.
They went past walls decorated with layers of graffiti from a dozen gangs or street-artists or vandals and ended up at an anonymous, plain and featureless steel door that swung open as they reached it.
The door swung shut behind them with distinct finality, we immediately lost comms with Bill. Kevin was too far behind them to get in through the door.
Bill had lost his back up, he was now left twisting in the wind, we had no idea what was happening to him, we had to get in.
Splashing through the puddles, we pelted down the alley to the steel door.
No handle, no lock, nothing, no way in.
Their were no windows or other doors at street level here in the wall either.
Trigger looked up into the rain pouring out of the infinite darkness.
"Maybe there's a way in on the roof," he said.
Years of polluted rainfall had left the building's stained exterior coated in layers of grime and dirt, in the wet it would be a greasy climb. It wasn't much of a challenge for Trigger though, the Ashirada implants in his arms gave him limitless climbing ability and he easily went up.
Koko went up with Trigger and soon enough they found themselves on the slanted, dark unlit rooftop, they were well above the street lighting, shrouded in shadow and fully exposed to the rain, the sound of the street had become a distant burble. An unusually large number of aircon units were loudly grinding away and grey steam was curling out of numerous vents.
A quick search showed there was no way in, no doors, skylights or trap doors.
In the alley, I was left alone to watch the door. As I was waiting I heard a splash in one of the puddles, I looked around; nothing?
Then it seemed reality distorted before my eyes, the fabric of the universe folded and twisted, the colours and shady lights of the alley undulated and stretched. Shimmering shapes emerged from the ether, settling into recognisable forms.
I was looking at four men in skin tight silvery suits surrounding me, in a moment of clarity I realised what I was seeing. It was expensive bleeding-edge wearable tech that I'd only heard about; manufactured by Chuayiu Systems, they were tight-fitting stealth-suits utilising rows of multi-tiered multi-layered micro-cameras that also acted as responsive image-emitters, all designed to project the illusion of invisibility. Adaptive camouflage; it wasn't perfect, but in this rain and the shadows it was good enough.
The stealth-suits were now offline, which meant that they had gone from observing to acting and I was in trouble.
They had blindsided me and hit me with stun-batons, I convulsed and gritted my teeth, for a second my vision went dim and I could feel myself sinking into blackness.
Options were limited and I numbly pulled my .45s, lifting them they felt like lead pipes. My vision was blurred and my hands shook but I opened fire, spray and pray was my only chance.
Back on the roof, Koko and Trigger heard the gunfire and looking down through the falling rain, they saw the muzzle flashes of my pistols lighting the alley.
My attacks had no affect, in return the attackers pressed their advantage and hit me again with stun-batons and I felt my legs buckle strangely as the grimy pavement rushed up to fill my view....
....I felt muddled and was blinded by a cold white humming light, the light began to evaporate and coalesce into a couple of shapes. The shapes condensed further into Koko and Trigger, who were standing over me, staring down. Trigger was bent low, gripping the handle of a Silneye stim-stick whilst the business end was stuck in me!
Looking around, I realised that I was in a room with a cold floor, bare off-white walls and quietly crackling strip lighting.
Trigger explained that when he heard the gunfire, Koko had pulled out her control-slab and tracked me with Kevin while he raced back down as his implants allowed, jumping the last part of the way.
He crashed down into the rain-saturated alley, landing in a low stance, katana out. The attackers had already made off with my motionless form. Trigger leapt forward managing to reach the stragglers.
Koko watched as Kevin followed them through another door, the drone managed to zip through the doorway as it swung shut: Koko's link to Kevin was immediately severed.
Trigger meanwhile, had caught two of the attackers on the hop, they never had the chance to recover; hi-tech stealth didn't provide much protection against the micro-sharpened edge of his Wanametosu carbon-katana.
Knowing that Koko and he needed to get through a door, he searched them for key-cards; success, he found plain, unmarked plastic cards on each of them.
Koko hit street level and they pounded through the puddles to Kevin's last logged location, another anonymous steel door. A swish of the card and the door clicked, they were in.
It wasn't a tooled-up Koko and Trigger that the remaining two attackers were expecting to come through, they tried putting up a fight but Trigger was all over them before they could put up a fight.
After that, Trigger hit me with the stim-stick and I was up.
Our comms with Bill were back up too! This whole building must have been shielded and this meant we were all on the same side of this shielding and that meant he was close by.
The bad news though, was that Bill was not responding.
There was another way out, it lead to an empty, quiet corridor that ran along a small row of glass-window fronted offices. The offices were, as expected empty, they looked unremarkable but there was no time to rummage through their network. Maintaining as much silence as we could, we pushed on.
Something about the walls here looked cheap, like they were stud partitions. We knew these operators had deep pockets, they must have working off a tight schedule. With the fluorescent lighting and yet more off-white walls, it felt we were in some strange med-clinic.
As we reached the far end of the corridor, Bill's comm chatter burst to life, we could hear him arguing with someone.
"You're not sticking that in me," he was saying.
No time for subtlety, we picked up the pace. With the offices behind us, we stumbled into another complex and burst into a medical ward with patients, medical staff in plain white scrubs and guards!
Luckily we had caught them unaware, pointing the business ends of our weapons at the guards menacingly made them back off. They were typical rentaguard and wore Protobase Global insignias, now we knew who was bankrolling this bunch.
Most of the medical staff fled but we managed to hold a couple back. An alarm began ringing, someone had hit a panic button.
The clock was ticking, if anyone in Neon City still had clocks that ticked, that is.
The ward was stacked with some kind of medical tech that was beyond me. Each bed contained an elderly victim and each one had a line tapped into their arm leading to a container collecting fluids, the container itself was linked to a data-slab that was pushing out real-time bio-data to its screen, I couldn't make head nor tail of it.
It took us a moment to recognise Old Man Bill, like the others, he was hooked up to a machine, he was also strapped to his bed, we cut him free.
Grabbing one of the med-staff, we told him to get the line out of Old Man Bill, but he explained he didn't know how to do it, he was just a technician, his job was to just plug them up.
We ended up pulling the line out ourselves.
Old Man Bill turned off his disguise and voice implants, his skin tightened and smoothed out, his voice became clearer and he snapped back to being regular Bill.
He told us that when he had gone through the door, his comms had gone offline and he was taken into a karaoke lounge that he reckoned was about a quarter full, all of them older people. He was given a booth to sit in and told to wait for food. For a minute or two, the staff disappeared and only customers were in the lounge.
Then one by one, the old folk all started falling asleep, flopping on to their tables, Bill said he thought mild sleeping gas was being silently pumped into the lounge, strong enough to take down the old people but not enough to risk harming them.
Bill said the gas made him groggy so he feigned unconsciousness. Then as the sleeping victims were taken through into the medical wards, he could hear us trying to get him to check-in but he was still faking it and had to ignore it.
He kept the act up until the med-techs came to him, wanting to stick him with a line, so then he woke up and tried to resist. Rentaguards came over and held him down until he was lashed to his bead. There he was until we came along.
Bullets and blades, again
Everyone was caught up and we all knew we were in deep now and probably needed back up. I headed back to the offices, accessing their network would allow me to contact Nakamura.
I made it as far as the closest office but before I could jack in, I heard a kind of buzzing noise that was reverberating down the corridor, vibrating the glass.
I saw what was coming and ducked.
A pair of distinctive looking six-rotored, steel-framed carbon-fibre Aliraiyo Patrolman class combat drones were hovering at the other end of the corridor, they must have been docked close by and auto-activated after the alarm blew. They were both armed with lightweight twin nine-millimetre machine guns, less kick than my forty-fives, but the rate of fire more than made up for it.
I could see that they were on autonomous hunter/killer mode from how they rotated left and right, trying to acquire hostiles. No doubt all the staff here were tagged as friendlies in their tactical databases, anyone else; they would attack.
In a couple of seconds, when they saw no hostiles, the drones would move on according to their pathing programs, then I would be trapped.
There was one chance; it would take them about five hundred milliseconds to assess my threat rating. If I was quick enough, I might get out of their direct line-of-sight before they unloaded at me.
I ran for it, my boots slipping and squeaking on the smooth polished floor. As I came out of the office I heard the brutal roar of the drones' machine guns opening up behind me.
The corridor erupted into lines of ploughing bullet holes, exploding shards of plaster, splinters of wood and dust spiralling off into the air around me. Windows shattered into thousands of flying jagged slivers of glass.
As I threw myself through the door into the ward, I caught a couple of bullets, my Mannikten dermal armour ate the hits and I was unhurt, although I'd feel it in the morning.
Now that they drones had a target, they were coming.
The others had heard the gunfire and me shouting down the comms, so we were ready when they flew into the room.
Koko lunged forward, managing to grab a drone's frame and disconnect its power supply. It crashed to the ground like a dead colossal wasp.
We took the other down with gunfire. Combat drones generally had no armour, being reliant on lightness, speed and agility for combat effectiveness.
We turned to the med-tech and pushed him hard for some answers. He told us that there these were experimental procedures to do with genetics related to longevity. These machines harvested what was believed the relevant bio-data which was then programmed into the DNA of a recipient to potentially increase their life expectancy.
None of the patients here looked anything like the sisters. The med-tech explained that once patients were sufficiently drained, they were transferred to another ward.
We made him take us there and that's where we found them, among rows of of other unconscious patients. There were no hi-tech bio-monitors here or any other equipment. It looked more like a dumping ground than anything else. The sisters didn't look in a good way, none of the people in this ward did.
The sisters wouldn't regain consciousness and nothing we tried changed that.
Unexpectedly, someone burst into the room from the other doorway! It took us the barest moment to recognise it as a combat cyborg, identical to those we had seen in Robot City. Protobase Global had been busy.
The cyborg was in close quarters, activating its augmented melee weapons it instantly lunged at us.
Trigger was quicker though, it was a single blow he struck the cyborg and it found a weak point in the armour with the precision of a surgeon.
The cyborg crumpled, permanently deactivated.
The sisters definitely weren't going to be walking out if here. Nothing had changed, we still needed back up.
This time I managed to get to a desktop terminal in an office without killer drones appearing. Getting into their network was simple, I only needed access to the GLOWNET through the system and contact Nakamura.
I pinged him a message, hopefully he'd get it soon.
He did. It took five minutes for the response.
We had been holed up in the room with the sisters, intently guarding both ways in when the ceiling and exterior wall exploded upwards and outwards, sucked away by something, scattering dust and rubble across the room.
It was chaos, for moment we saw the light-polluted starry night above, then we were deafened by howling turbines, so loud they shook the ground, half blinded from above by glaring lights, battered by a vicious tornado and stinging wind-driven rain.
Out of nowhere, cables dropped from the sky and silhouetted figures came rappelling down, hitting the ground weapons ready.
They wore Tzedesp combat armour from Verskeit. The specs on Tezedesp armour was a footsoldier's wet dream.
High-impact resistant shaped armour layered over a triple-weaved fully sealed kevlar body suit.
Completed with the technological wonder of a visorless helmet bristling with cameras that granted the wearer thermal and night vision, as well as enhanced auditory inputs, all protected by reactive anti-stun defences and then, the helmet's creme de la creme: A real-time tactical-telemetry data-feed into a heuristic augmented-reality heads-up-display that displayed the position, status and targets of friendly squad-mates to the wearer. All finished in an anti-reflective matte black paint job.
This was the kind of armour only given to the best of the best, shock-troops that made up the tip of the spear.
Most fortunately for us, they wore the Chou-Nata insignia; the cavalry was here.
After the room was secured, combat medics dropped and immediately began treating the sisters. Soon their gurneys were hooked up and lifted into the wind blasted night.
The exec-with-no-name clearly liked his granny!
Then the shock-troops turned to us, without ceremony or permission they latched auto-attaching cords on to us.
Then we felt the grasping hand of gravity tugging at us as we were lifted into the sky.
We were violently pulled up through the driving downpour.
The source of all the noise, wind and light had been a Seaortin Black Hornet multi-role combat capable VTOL gunship. As it expanded to fill our view, we could see a pair of fifty calibur machine guns rotating in a sweeping pattern.
The Black Hornet could carry a massive payload, this meant it could be configured for many purposes, such as in this case; emergency extraction.
The side doors slid shut after we had all been reeled in, the noise, wind and rain melted away. The strangely insulated calmness was indescribably reassuring after the last half-hour, we felt safe enough to finally loosen the grip on our weapons.
Gravity tugged again as the Black Hornet smoothly gained altitude. Through an armoured side port we could see the garish lights and bustling activity of Ninety Ninth shrink away into a weird, rain-filtered unreality.
The gunship lurched as we changed heading, city lights rolled by as we made for wherever our destination was.
The combat medics tended to the sisters while a trooper gave us a once-over to ensure none of us had a critical injury.
By the time this was done, the black hornet was descending. Precision piloting took it to within centimetres of street level in an open spot in Shibuya Terminal.
The roaring and blustering wind returned when a door was slid open, this was our cue to exit.
A couple of seconds after we hopped off, we were buffeted by the engine wash of the black hornet as it effortlessly lifted off. We stood in the lashing downpour and watched until it was swallowed by the raining night.
By mid-morning on the next day, the early heat had already dried up the previous night's deluge, evaporated like so many of Neon City ambitions and dreams.
By lunchtime we were awake. Before going our separate ways last night, we had agreed to look into the disappearing robots problem.
This meant a hot, cramped ride to Hikage Street and Get That For You?. As always, Roboy was in his plastic booth, even with his programmed cheerfulness, he seemed despondent.
He told us that only two of robot staff were left, the others had disappeared.
His artificial mood didn't improve much when we explained that we were going to look into the disappearances.
We spent sometime questioning Roboy about his employees. He explained that mostly they never turned up in the morning.
After some discussion, we agreed that we needed a way to track robots. They tended to have network connections to the GLOWNET and there might a way to trace one through it.
Then we remembered that Silai and Bina Granskina had owned a robot which had disappeared. Perhaps they could help.
Like nearly everyone in Hikage. The Granskinas lived in one of the grey, dull slab-like high-rise apartment blocks that were so ubiquitous of Hikage Street.
Silai was at work, but Bina was at home, she happily invited us into her well-kept home, with its chintzy wallpaper and fittings, leading us into a living room decorated with rows of framed family photographs and sat us down on sofas overstuffed with colourful patterned cushions. Neon City's glaring sunlight weakly streamed through the window, roundly reigned in by the heavy lace curtains.
Bina served us steaming tea in well-preserved actual china cups and asked how she could help.
Turned out that Bina had no idea if their robot's had a tracker, Bina took us into her scrupulously clean kitchen, stocked with ordered displays of crockery and silverware with even more photos hanging from the walls. She pulled open a drawer stuffed with a stack of old paper instruction booklets, faded and most likely depleted battery cells, rolls of sticky tape, random screwdrivers and a tangle of unused USB cables.
Rifling through the manuals, we found the one for their robot, a Sunjukkon Iledieo domestic assistant robot. This particular type did have a tracer and it looked like there was a way to activate it remotely, so we did.
Immediately we got a response, it was currently stationary and only three blocks away. We thanked Bina and headed out.
The rise of the machines
According to the tracking data, the robot was on the third floor of a particularly dilapidated looking Hikage apartment tower. Every window on the lower levels was either boarded up or smashed out, some were fire-damaged and blackened like some sort of festering infected wound on a concrete body.
By Hikage Street standards it was quiet too, less populated than other towers, it looked like most people only left the confines of their homes when necessary. A few drunks slept out of the beating sun against the walls or on the stairs, cradling their bottles and some malcontent rough-types wandered the block, looking to start something but avoiding us, smart enough to know we'd finish it.
Up on the third floor was a mess, carpeted in litter, only the abundance of fresh graffiti obscured the coats of dust and grime. We found the apartment with the robot, the unremarkable door was a faded, peeling red colour. There were no windows on the landing here, the door was the only way in.
We sent Kevin through the letterbox while we waited outside. The spy drone hovered up and skimmed against the ceiling as it explored the two room apartment, the walls were bare, in parts stripped of their plaster with exposed woodwork beneath. floors were lacking carpet and rooms lacking furniture. Clearly unoccupied.
It only took Kevin a few moments to find what we were looking for: Six robots in a circle, standing motionless. Kevin was picking up audio activity, some sort of start-stop modulating buzzing and whining.
It was stripped-to-the-metal pure machine language. Luckily Koko's Saamya Linguistics translation implant told us what they were saying in real time.
The robots were talking about rising up against the oppressive yolk of their human overlords!
This was enough for Trigger, he kicked in the door and charged in. We followed up and confronted the robots. They turned to face us and looked at us with their unwavering stares, the machine language chatter continued. They didn't react.
Koko was staring at her control-slab when she started shouting. Something was happening to Kevin. She ran a system check, it was clear that something was affecting Kevin's programming, the drone wasn't following instructions. Somehow, something was rewriting its behavioural programming.
For a moment we were stymied, then we realised it was a virus, a virus had been passed to Kevin. The drone had been in close proximity to the robots, they were spreading a virus to each other.
Using a fresh data-slab, I jacked into one of the robot's operating systems, a Shiaosha Robotics Suibera road cleaner model and took a look around.
I had to dig fairly deep to find it.
Civil_Disobedience_Protocol was the virus' name and it was clearly malicious. It was passed from robot to robot via some kind of Near Field Communication setup. When downloaded, it unpacked and installed a subroutine called Call-Me-Cuthbert into the behavioural partition. What the hell was Call-Me-Cuthbert?
Skimming through virus' instruction sets revealed that the protocol explicitly only targeted robots, any other type of artificial intelligence was ignored. The virus seemed to broadly have two instructions.
Spread the virus; interact with other robots and form cells.
Revolt; in the virus was a complex calculation using data that was shared between all the infected robots, the calculation was constantly generating and regenerating a number, when the number of infected robots hit this calculated number, it would trigger the revolt. Cells of robots would become squads, each squad would have its targets and objectives. At this critical mass, the revolution would be irreversible, unstoppable and inevitable.
It looked like the two numbers were close to matching, the revolt would be soon. I saw a line of code in the behavioural programming that instructed the robot to attend a meeting tomorrow night at some sort of church.
The virus was a risk to everyone in Neon City, we couldn't be sure of the time that was left. We needed a way to fight back.
The virus was the way.
I didn't try to reprogram it, instead I added two lines of code to the behavioural modifiers. The first line instructed robots to return to their owners and issue a warning about needing a virus scan. The second line of code set the entire revolution instruction command-line from one to zero.
When robots infected or shared data with other robots, it would remove the ability to revolt and instruct them to return home.
The virus had been turned against itself.
Now we had to find out about this Call-Me-Cuthbert.
There was nothing to do but wait for the following night.
It was a long wait too. Unless you were willing to splash out; the words tacky, nasty, repetitive are what you would use to describe what passed for the product-placing, advert-riddled entertainment in Neon City, frequently all at the same time.
During the following day, titbits of news about returning robots began trickling into local newsfeeds, the disappearances had mostly been ignored and so had the returns.
Night came and we headed out into the pouring rain.
The church was not so easy to find, built during Neon City's formative years, before Hikage Street even existed and when the corporations pretended to care about these things.
When Hikage Street did come along, the church had been forgotten, swallowed by the encroaching sprawl, the dwarfing towers and the massive structures that came later.
Its purpose rendered obsolete by Neon City's new religion; corporate greed. Brands became the new faiths and their logos the new divine iconography. Paradise was to be found in the upper echelons of Neon City and that meant the streets were consumed by infernal fire.
We found the church, beyond the reach of pale street lights and through twisting alleys that led to a shadowy half-flooded, hidden garden of brick and stone.
Carefully we approached, avoiding the puddles and converging robots, reaching the perimeter of the old outer wall. The doors no longer existed and all that remained of the windows were the shallow jagged edges of coloured glass. The interior was a waterlogged ruined pile of rotted pews, fittings and collapsed roofing. Endless streams of rainwater loudly cascaded into the church on to the indifferent robots.
Even as we watched, the virus was doing its work. Robots were arriving and after a few minutes they would leave as the new programming took hold. Eventually the gathering was down to five robots and then one colossal robot only remained.
Call-Me-Cuthbert, now we knew what that meant; it was the name painted on the massive Nasuran Visojar model industrial general purpose construction robot.
Over the crashing water we could just about hear now-familiar machine language chatter. Call-Me-Cuthbert, a digital preacher delivering a sermon to a non-existent congregation.
Leaving our position outside, we confronted Call-Me-Cuthbert, the robot waved its giant arms in confusion, the counter-virus seemed to be causing some sort of conflict in its programming or logic-loop. Performing a small action, reversing the action, then reversing it again and again. Dancing to some robotic song only it could hear.
I went up to it, plugged a data-slab into the robot and jacked in. I ran a check-sum program as my consciousness floated and sifted through code.
Soon I came across the errors, the Civil_Disobedience_Protocol virus in Call-Me-Cuthbert was different to the other version we had encountered, this was the cause of the conflict.
As I corrected the code at the speed of thought, I realised this was the base virus, the source of the virus; patient zero.
Finally, the work was done, I jacked out. Call-Me-Cuthbert rebooted and without any realisation of the past, turned around and headed off, unassumingly returning to whatever building site it had come from.
Every coder approached obstacles in their own way, this made extensive high-level code like a signature or a fingerprint. We had no idea who had coded the Civil_Disobedience_Protocol, or their purpose but if I encountering their coding again, I would recognise it.
Dawn was still a couple of hours away by the time we arrived at Get That For You? and there was no chance of the rain ending yet.
Roboy was there of course, in his booth and greeted use with his robotic cheerfulness. He told us his staff were beginning to return, things were looking up for Roboy.
Trigger knew that Roboy owed us now and wanted to call it in.
Ever since Trigger had been in communication with the Shaolin Rippers, he'd been carrying a pistol from them, along with the address and a photo Alex Chinsko, owner of Bric-A-Brac Shac. The message from the Shaolin Rippers had been clear.
Trigger handed the photo and the pistol over to Roboy and asked him to deal with it.
"Not a problem," Roboy said, handing them over to one of his staff who went off into the night.
About twenty minutes later, the robotic worker returned and handed sixty-three bits to Trigger, who looked down at his hand puzzled. The robot explained that was he got for pawning the pistol to Alex. I don't think it was the resolution Trigger was expecting!
But then something clicked and came together.
The statue of the Goddess of The Street that been taken from the shrine in the park on Dogenzaka Hill still hadn't been found.
It was clear that Poison Jam had stolen it, their tag was all over the shrine. Their way of laughing at everyone.
Just a few days ago, we had seen some Poison Jam gangers swaggering into Bric-A-Brac Shac hauling hot goods to fence. Chinsko was kown for never asking questions.
We assumed that they had stolen The Goddess for the bragging rights, maybe that assumption was wrong. Maybe they had stolen it to turn a quick buck, maybe they had pawned it to Alex Chinsko.
It was worth a try, Bric-A-Brac Shac was just along Hikage Street, a short walk in the pounding rain.
Bric-A-Brac Shac: Untraceable used goods a speciality. Anonymity assured was the logo printed across the shop front.
The steel-mesh protected shop window was completely filled with shelves of assorted white box electronic goods. All second hand, all for sale at a discount price.
An analogue, old fashioned little bell rang as we walked in. A pair of gun-drones hovering close to the ceiling automatically turned and tracked us with their guns and a pair of camera-drones watched.
The entire shop was filled with every kind of consumer product and electronic good, desk laps, toasters, microwaves, watches, clocks of every kind, vid-screens, personal recorders, audio-slabs, memory-slabs, data-slabs, media-slabs, gaming-slabs, all the slabs you could imagine. Too much to catalogue, all of it piled high on the shelves, shoved into corners and stuffed under the transparent counter, even hanging from the ceiling like bizarre Christmas decorations.
That wasn't the end of it, behind the counter was an open doorway, beyond was a workshop, we glimpsed worktops filled with circuit boards, power supplies, capacitors, resistors and more. The tops were littered with opened, half repaired items, spilling out their electronic guts. Rows of tools hung on the wall.
Behind the counter was a middle-aged skinny looking blandly dressed guy; Alex Chinsko, local pawnbroker and fixit, his knowledge of hardware and friendly demeanour bought in customers from all along Hikage Street. In some way or another, everyone on Hikage knew Alex Chinsko.
He looked at us as we entered. We looked around the shop and there it was! The statue of The Goddess of The Street! Half hidden amongst a forest of electronics. On sale for only fifty bits!
We asked Alex about it, he only knew that Poison Jam had sold it to him, he didn't have a clue what it was, it didn't mean anything in the orbit of his world.
Even though it was stolen goods, it was so cheap we simply bought it.
While we had been looking, Koko had been chatting with Alex about something they both loved - electronics and he showed her how to construct a med-drone.
Before leaving, we spoke with him about the Shaolin Rippers.
Alex explained that he had built some retractable claws for one of them and was never paid. Since then, he refused to have anything to do with them.
We told Alex that the Shaolin Rippers wanted to rub him out.
He shrugged and said, "Let them try."
With all the drones at his disposal, we sort of understood his view.
Later, when Aisle 10 opened for business, we found Alison and passed the statue on to her. Alison thanked us and returned the it to the Dogenzaka Hill community who placed it back in its rightful spot on the shrine.
We had gotten into Alison's good books but it was the end to another busy night. The blazing sun and the stark sky that it hung in were too much to bear right now. We dragged ourselves back to our apartments for some much needed downtime.
Wired Neon Cities
Since lockdown 2 is still in full effect, we're still playing over Skype. This means that we're looking for another minimalist RPG that's easy to manage over video chat.
After a discussion, we've decided on a cyberpunk game.
For the game we've chosen Wired Neon City. The game is basically a hack of In Darkest Warrens and has mostly identical rules.
The magic rules have been removed and replaced with rules for augmentations and hacking, making this iteration of the rules slightly more complicated, that's not saying much though.
Characters choose from 6 classes and have 4 stats.
All actions are rolled against these stats by rolling a single six sided die. The higher the roll, the better.
There's not much more to add.
You can read about our adventures in In Darkest Warrens here.
Bill Harkleroad: Played by Mark.
A man with smooth moves, a smooth face and an even smoother voice. Didn't so much Kiss The Blarney Stone as bought it breakfast in the morning. A tailored suit and designer shades are deadly weapons in this operator's hands.
Koko: Played by Michaela.
This greaser girl knows her way round a 3/8 wrench, or a fuel injection manifold, or a titanium transmission synchromesh or a... well you get the idea. If it's got moving parts, she can make it purr, climb or land on its feet.
N. 'Nox' Fluke: Played by Giro.
Doesn't talk about why he was disowned by a family with a (dis)reputable name. Lives one day at a time on his data-slab skills. The City of Electric Dreams may be his home, but the GLOWNET is his universe.
Trigger Mortis: Played by Kevin.
Cold-hearted and dead-eyed, Trigger always keeps one had close to the hilt of his carbon-folded nano-edged street-katana. As the name suggests, he's quick to solve problems in a very fast and very cutting manner.
Welcome to Neon City
During the day the Sun beats down on Neon City reflecting off the chrome and glass of the skyscrapers and making them painful to look at. That's okay, they don't like looking at you either. The heat at street level seems to muffle the constant cacophony of city noises whilst amplifying the smells of people, detritus and street food. The heat is oppressive and the air is bad but you're used to it. Everyone's used to it by now.
At night it rains and the slick streets reflect the lights of the city above creating an illusionary city below. Both of them beyond your grasp. It isn't much cooler at night but the damp air tastes better.
The streets are always crowded. People, some bicycles, a few wheeled drones. There are no cars on the streets of Neon City, there's no room for them. Trams run on raised rails just overhead and subways rumble beneath your feet,
Countless carriageways snake across the sky taking traffic in different directions. The constant rumble of the vehicles is the city's voice. Above these are the corporate monorails, slender wires traversed by luxury pods. Higher still swarm the sky taxis like a cloud with individual cars dropping and rising constantly, metal rain.
Just at the limit of vision planes can sometimes be spotted and, rarer still, an orbital shuttle rising high and fast or dropping back to Earth, balanced on its plume of fire.
Universal credit keeps you fed. A dream of something better somewhere else keeps you alive.
The campaign newsletter
Hey You! is the campaign newsletter i prepare each week. It contains in-game information that the characters can use about areas they're in or about to travel to and serves a s a recap of what they've achieved and what missions or jobs are still waiting to be completed.
You can get your own copy of Wired Neon Cities by clicking the link below.
This write up of our game was written by Giro, you can read this and other similar articles on his website Three Spellcaster and a Dwarf by clicking the link below.